Sunday, December 18, 2016

Advent 2016: Anticipating Renewal

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

    Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
        And they will call him, Emmanuel.

(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)

When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18–25 CEB)
This story will be repeated over and over again this week. In fact, we hear it so often that we might even miss the miraculous nature of what happened here! And we also sometimes miss this very important fact: The people of Israel had waited a long time to see Jesus.

The Gospel writer, Matthew, is careful to point out that all of these things happened to fulfill what the LORD had said through the prophet (Isaiah). We’ve spent the last two weeks in Isaiah. Isaiah lived over 700 years before Jesus was born! From that time until Joseph and Mary happened upon that stable in Bethlehem, the people of Israel had waited. They waited for someone to rescue them. They waited for someone to restore the Kingdom of David. They waited for God to make good on His promise! And I have to assume that there were many times in Israel’s history when they believed God would never make good on that promise. When Assyria came into the Northern Kingdom and took exiles back to Nineveh, I have to believe there were many children of Abraham who believed God had forgotten them. When Babylon came nearly 200 years later and destroyed Jerusalem, I have to believe that there were many who believed God had forgotten them. And later, when the Persians arrived, and then the Greeks, and then the Romans, God’s people surely wondered if He would ever arrive to bring peace and salvation! But He finally did arrive. All those years ago, God did come to earth in the form of a man. On the first Christmas morning, God took on flesh. For the first time, God took a breath through human lungs and cried the cry of a human infant. The people of Israel couldn’t wait for God to arrive, and He finally did!

But the story didn’t end there.

Jesus was born. He lived to become a man. Eventually He was killed. But ultimately He defied death and rose from the grave. And after that Resurrection event, which is the center of our existence, God left again with this promise: “I will return again.” In skimming over this gospel story, I certainly do not mean to belittle Jesus’ life, death, and Resurrection! For it is through this gospel story that we are saved. And it is through this gospel story that our lives have meaning.

But in this season of Advent, I want to call something to your attention. Those children of God who have lived since Jesus ascended into heaven have something in common with the ones who lived before the first Christmas. Those living in this Christian age also await the arrival of God. Israel awaited God’s first arrival, and we await His second. And just as it was sometimes difficult for Isaiah and Hosea and Micah to wait upon the LORD, it was also difficult for Peter and Paul and James and Priscilla and Lydia to wait upon the LORD.

In the first century, in fact, waiting on Jesus became quite a concern. When Jesus said He would return soon, many took Him at His word! In some of Paul’s early writings, he seemed to indicate his belief that Jesus would return in His own lifetime. He urged people to remain unmarried: “Jesus is coming back soon;” “Don’t cloud your life with unnecessary things—like a family!” But when Jesus didn’t come back in a year and then two, and then a decade, this caused a real crisis of faith for those early Christians. “Was Jesus really the One?” “Is He really coming back?” And all at once, they began to experience those same kinds of persecutions that Israel had experienced in the past. The Romans ruling over them with an iron fist, Christian martyrdom, depression and doubt set in. To put it simply: those earliest Christians couldn’t wait for Jesus to arrive. That is what led the writer of II Peter to write these words:
Finally, all of you be of one mind, sympathetic, lovers of your fellow believers, compassionate, and modest in your opinion of yourselves. Don’t pay back evil for evil or insult for insult. Instead, give blessing in return. You were called to do this so that you might inherit a blessing. For
those who want to love life
    and see good days
should keep their tongue from evil speaking
    and their lips from speaking lies.
They should shun evil and do good;
    seek peace and chase after it.
The Lord’s eyes are on the righteous
    and his ears are open to their prayers.
But the Lord cannot tolerate those who do evil.
Who will harm you if you are zealous for good? But happy are you, even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them. Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. (II Peter 3:8–15a CEB)
Those first Christians needed assurance that Jesus would keep His promise. And they needed encouragement, because life in this world is difficult! Sometimes, even though we know God will arrive soon, those who await the coming of the LORD can easily become discouraged. So those early Christians, like the children of God before them, couldn’t wait for Jesus to arrive. And brothers and sisters, in this season of Advent, we too await the arrival of Jesus.

And sometimes waiting is difficult, isn’t it?

I know we have some families at Glenwood that are really struggling. I know some of our parents are at the end of their ropes. With many more questions than answers, with much more frustration than peace. Parents, I don’t have any magic words to say to make your pain or frustration go away, but I do have this hope to offer you. There was a group of people long ago who longed for Jesus to come. And He did. And He will again!

Some of you are so trapped in sin that you cannot find your way out. No matter how hard you try, no matter repentant you are, no matter how much energy you expend, you cannot get rid of that sin in your life. Whatever its name, alcoholism, pornography, greed, apathy; the list goes on and on and on. Brothers and sisters, I don’t have any magic words to say to make your pain or frustration go away, but I do have hope to offer you. There was a group of people long ago who longed for Jesus to come, and He did, and He will again!

Some of you are dealing with physical problems. The doctors say there is not much more they can do. You will have to deal with the pain. You will have to come to grips with the prognosis. This is your new reality! Or, your vocation in this life has become making him or her comfortable. It’s not fun helping someone to die gracefully, but that is what some of us have been called to do! It’s not easy to watch someone you love grow sicker or older. I don’t have any magic words to say to make your pain or frustration go away, but I do have hope to offer you. There was a group of people long ago who longed for Jesus to come, and He did, and He will again!

Until that day arrives, may we make every effort to be found spotless, blameless, and at peace with Him. Brothers and sisters, in this Christmas season, as the world celebrates the arrival of God on earth, let us not forget, in fact, let us boldly proclaim, that God not only visited this earth once, He will come again!

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